Thinking About Learning Mandarin Chinese in Shanghai? Here’s My Experience

Taking the decision of learning Mandarin Chinese in Shanghai was pretty easy, making it into practice a whole different deal. Yet, despite the hardship, I think it’s one of the best things to do in Shanghai to get to know the city and the culture.

“Don’t be afraid, you are in China!” When Chen laoshi (teacher Chen) delivered such a statement to the class on the first day of my Mandarin course in Shanghai, it did sound pretty unusual. Until I understood that all she meant was to encourage us to practice our newly learned Mandarin Chinese straight away in the streets.

Learning Mandarin in Shanghai, China
The Old City in Shanghai

“This is exactly how I like it,” I thought. “Interacting with the natives.”

With all this in mind, I made it to the local market of my neighbourhood, ready to sport the few Chinese words in I had just studied during my class.

Easier said than done, learning Mandarin in Shanghai proved all but a piece of cake.

Learning Chinese in Shanghai, my experience

At every word I tried to communicate, I was met with a blank look, and when I reported my lack of success to my teacher, her reaction wasn’t really reassuring: “Of course they didn’t understand, if you get a tone wrong, you’ll say a different word!”

That was my first experience with the four tones that make Mandarin impenetrable to new learners.

Learning Chinese Characters

I have always been fascinated by Asian cultures, and being the Chinese one of the most ancient ones, the Country of the Middle (Zhong Guo, 中国) was naturally going to be my next expat destination.

As it proudly boasts 5000 years of age, it goes without saying that learning Mandarin Chinese in Shanghai gives much better access to the most intimate nuances of Chinese culture and lifestyle.

Want to learn Chinese? Study its characters
A sample of Chinese characters, essential if you are trying to learn Chinese

Although natives like to remark that memorizing characters (han zi, 汉字) does not mean “drawing” but “writing”, to me they still look like tiny images, and it helps me a lot when I can connect them with the origin of their creation.

For example, the character for “good” looks like this 好 and symbolizes a woman with a baby. The reason? In the ancient society, the woman with the baby was considered precious.

Studying Mandarin to better understand Chinese culture

After visiting Beijing and Shanghai, my perception of China was better than I had expected. Besides the blatant signs of globalization, such as the glitzy skyscrapers, lies the true nature of Chinese culture, a colourful array of ceramics, tiny teacups, inlaid swords, and the quirkiest insect markets.

What captivated me since my first week of learning Mandarin Chinese in Shanghai was the wide multiculturalism given by the presence of foreigners from all over the world and especially by the tangle of different ethnic groups populating China’s mainland.

Despite being so multicultural, however, before learning Mandarin my start in Shanghai has been much tougher than I expected due to the barrier of the language.

Learning Mandarin in Shanghai, my experience

The first burden I stumbled on was the fact that written and spoken Mandarin bear no resemblance, so it was impossible to look up unknown terms in the dictionary, and apart from road signs and metro lines, everything is written only in characters, from products’ instructions to vegetables’ names.

Spoken Mandarin Chinese is by no means easier: the presence of four tones (which to me sound pretty much the same) makes it very common to misunderstand or say the wrong term.

As soon as I realized there was no way I could pick up any word, my first reaction was one of despair, and giving up on my semester abroad crossed my mind more than once.

Fortunately, I’m not very inclined to admit defeat, so I stuck to my original plan and enrolled in university determined to learn Chinese once and for all.

From my first-hand experience I always suggest that if you are going to study in Chine or even only taking a shorter trip, you will find very handy this 6-page Chinese Vocabulary. This is a guide divided into tables that show Chinese characters, the pinyin (transliteration of Chinese characters into Latin alphabet) and the English translation. It will definitely help you get by in the very first moments and avoid getting despondent.

If you are on a business trip or are planning to stay in China a little longer, you can improve your Chinese language with an easy-to-use Chinese Flash Cards Kit. You will learn the most frequently used Chinese characters quickly and easily. Even though you won’t master Chinese like a pro, I guarantee you that locals will notice and extremely appreciate the effort. Again, very much first-hand experience.

Shanghai universities to study Mandarin

Despite the hardship of the language, the number of foreign students signing up to Chinese class increases by the day.

The college I’ve enrolled in for learning Mandarin in Shanghai is East China Normal University, or ECNU, but other good study-abroad programs are offered by Jiao Tong University and Fudan University.

On my first semester of the Chinese language course, my class boasted 14 nationalities, from Turkish to Kazakh, to Russian, to Korean. Apart from the intriguing sample of humanity I could enjoy every morning, it was particularly challenging to see how each and every one of them had their own way to absorb a foreign language, from not understanding to purpose of the verb “to be” of our outlandish Russian classmate, to the introduction of nasal vowels by the French team.

Although the course was English-Chinese, not many of us were comfortable in English, and the room, soon labelled “tea house” by our laoshi, inevitably became a picturesque mosaic of human nature.

Student life in Shanghai

“You’ll make a lot of friends in less than no time,” told me my local guide in Beijing while unearthing tales around the Forbidden City.

As the Mandarin lessons started, I kept wondering how on earth I could meet so many people if I had no idea even on how to introduce myself. It didn’t take me long to understand her statement. From within the university, one of the most common activities is language exchange, namely Chinese students who want to improve their English skills provide free classes to foreign students who enrolled to learn Mandarin.

Learning Mandarin in Shanghai and ordering food in Chinese
Chinese dumplings. Some of the first things of my Mandarin lessons taught us how to order food in Chinese language

Apart from having fun while studying, this is also the best way to make friends. I have three language partners and our classes take place in cafes and restaurants over a cup of Jasmine tea or a portion of chǎo miàn, 炒面 (stir-fried noodles), as well as along the rivers of the water towns surrounding Shanghai’s territory.

Despite my initial panic, I’m glad I took the challenge.

Our Mandarin class kicked off with some Chinese characters (hanzi) and basic Mandarin phrases to be able to at least start a conversation.

Many people wonder how to learn Chinese, and my first and best piece of advice is to do it continuously, not to interrupt, talk to people and practice writing and reading. Now, to read an easy newspaper article you need to know at least 3,000 (out of 5,000) Chinese characters.

Learning Mandarin Chinese characters is hard

Practice a lot. For every new Chinese character we learned, our teacher asked us to write a full page of it. At every lesson, we would learn from five to ten characters and at every class, the teacher would do a small dictation exercise mixing old and new Chinese characters. For sure one of my best tips on how to learn Chinese is to study the Chinese alphabet, which is not our typical alphabet but more ideograms.

While at the very beginning it’s hard to look up for terms in a dictionary, once you learn some Chinese characters you will also learn the sequence for checking them up and a bilingual dictionary will become one of the most precious tools for improving your Mandarin Chinese. I think brands like Oxford or Collins are excellent. 

Click here to check the Oxford Chinese dictionary.

As soon as I learned some basic Chinese phrases I practised it in the streets. I would talk to shop assistants, street vendors, bargain prices, made friends in university. The more I talked with locals, the more I was willing to do it. Chinese people appreciate very much when someone tries learning Mandarin Chinese and they listen, talk and made the effort to understand even when you make mistakes.

Talking to people is useful because alongside learning Chinese characters, it’s very important to practice the four tones that make Mandarin Chinese very difficult to speak.

Apart from learning Mandarin Chinese, during the year I spent in China I have acquired a new personal attitude, such as adopting the philosophy of being patient and letting go.

I learned very quickly how to deal with the reality of children and adults alike staring at me in disbelief because of my foreign look, I often find myself in the awkward situation of preferring eating with chopsticks rather than using fork and knife, and I have replaced my post-prandial espresso with a teapot of TieGuanyin tea.

Chinese have been cultivating the art of making tea for thousands of years, so I deemed appropriate to get involved in the national pride of my hosting country. I was initiated to the ritual of tea tasting and fighting (an old practice in which customers challenge the sellers with their own tea) by Yu Bin, a friend of mine whose dream is to open a tea shop himself, and since then I became addicted.

My second semester flew as fast as the first one, and even though I had to leave China, I always remember the year I spent in Shanghai as my best year abroad.

READ MORE: Are you wondering how to learn Chinese? Are you thinking about going to China to study Mandarin? You might find useful my posts on how to deal with everyday life situations in Mandarin Chinese:

Essential tips in Mandarin Chinese to order food at a restaurant

Essential Chinese words and basic expressions to use when asking for directions

Visiting China? Must-know expressions in Mandarin to deal with money and banks

Travelling to China? Must-know expressions in the Chinese language when travelling

Essential tips in the Mandarin language when getting sick on the road

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50 Comments
  1. Che articolo interessante ! Auguri per il cinese…

  2. En ce moment tu es en voyage pour l’Inde. J’espère de lire des articles et de voir des photos aussi interessants que celui-ci!

  3. Sooooo much more enjoying your new site design!

  4. Good for you for tackling Chinese! I can’t imagine how hard that would be…

    • It’s very hard, completely a different structure from western languages, that’s why, however, it’s very satisfying evey time you manage to have a conversation with locals. It’s undoubtedly a very beautiful language.

  5. Did you change your website template? Wow.. It’s just great! congrats

  6. I can’t even imagine how hard it must be to decipher those symbols. Not sure if I would have the patience to do it.

  7. Have a look at nciku.com – you can draw characters on screen and have them interpreted.

    One of my least favourite aspect of the characters is that some are so rare no-one knows how to write it or say it. For example, I can say my teachers name, but even she struggles to put it to paper correctly, and then not even other Chinese can read it…

    • Thanks for the link, Steve, I’ll have a look. Anything is good if it helps memorize the characters. Being able to read and write them gives a great satisfation, but it’s proving pretty hard!

  8. Congratulations on taking on the challenge and succeeding! We were in China in November and December and loved it there. I didn’t come close to mastering anything when it came to the language, but I loved listening to it. And I found that I could mimic the tones and hear the subtle differences easily, my guide told me that I grasped it quite well. (yes, I’m giving myself a pat on my back;-) ) I chalk it up to being an ex singer. I’m definitely not saying I would be a success, but with all the languages I have encountered in my travels Mandarin is the one that I could see myself getting into. Have fun in your second semester.

    • Hi Deb! Yes, I think being a singer helps a lot with Chinese pronunciation, the language really sounds like a song. I’m a terrible singer, maybe that’s why locals still don’t understand me :P

  9. Chinese language has always been a challenge for me. And I’m Chinese (never lived there though) – you’d think I have the ‘gene’ for it, ya? Thanks for sharing your experience. China is such a fascinating country.

    • Aww if you are Chinese it’s not going to be difficult for you, give it a try, it’s one beautiful language!

  10. I give you much credit for taking on the challenge of learning Mandarin. I’ve been struggling with French for years! Your experiences in Shanghai are so interesting to read. Love the photos, too.

  11. The pronunciation is hilariously difficult, and the tunes of each words just make me give up readily. I’m a Chinese descent that can’t speak Chinese. Perhaps one day I will try to learn it again? I read a little bit of Chinese character. Too tiny percentage of what’s out there.

    • True, pronunciation is unbelievable, and there are so many words that you pronounce the same way and have a thousand different meanings and as much characters! But I have to say that when I manage to have half conversation with a Chinese, I really enjoy :D Get back to studying it a little you’ll like it, and I’m sure for you it will be easier!

  12. Chinese is a really interesting language to learn! Keep on trying =)

  13. you can learn mandarin in Mandarin Garden. top1 mandarin school in Shanghai

  14. I’ve been staying in Shanghai for 5 months,and i learn Chinese in Miracle Mandarin School. The school is awesome, and the teachers are professional. I’m now planing to take the HSK test, hahaha

  15. The rapidly growing economic status of China has pushed the nation to the top of the list of desirable places to visit and do business. Learning Chinese will help ease communication difficulties when visiting China. Chinese, one of the oldest languages in the world, is made up of thousands of characters, and learning to read, write and speak Chinese can be difficult for a native English speaker. But, even though there are thousands of characters, there are a limited number of sounds. If you can learn the sounds, you can learn the language. Thanks.

    • Well, the thousands of characters to learn (and remember!) are not exactly easy, and neither the sounds. To a Chinese might sound very different, to me they were all pretty much the same!

      • Angela,
        do you have any recommendation of private teachers to study for 2 months?
        I tried going to university in Beijing and i didnt really learn much because they were too many people in the class, so i am looking for aprivate teacher in Shanghai, fo this october thru december
        Thanks

        • Hi Daniela, apart from uni, in Shanghai I used to go to an evening school as well, they do classes but I think also one-to-one private teaching. Here is their website and contact details:
          Shanghai Moren Education Training School
          Tel: +86 21 5308 5856
          http://www.morenedu.com

          I really enjoyed that school, teachers were great. I miss those days!

  16. You are lucky to learn in “simplified” characters (中国), and not traditional (中國), which is super detailed! Simplified was to enable more of the people to become literate. I just wanted to let you know that I enjoyed your post, but the character for good is not based on woman & child, but son (子) & daughter (女). The harmony, union between man & woman = goodness. Best of luck to you on your journey.

    • Interesting, I guess there are many interpretations about the origins of the characters, as I wrote what my Chinese teachers told us in class. Yeah, I don’t think I could never learn traditional hanzi, the simplified ones are already too hard for me! It’s probably easier when you start learning at a very young age..

  17. i am in Shanghai, i can teach you chinese, if you are interested, contact me, hxas8112@163.com
    skype:dongming923
    I am living Near Century Avenue, Pudong New Area. I have one year experience on teaching chinese .
    One hour is 60RMB.

  18. May i ask? Where did you learnt Mandarin in Shanghai. Im interested to learn Mandarin. I did some research there are HUtong and Mandarin Garden but im not so sure if there are ok. Thanks.

  19. Hello,
    Amazing article, very good description of the feelings, one can experiment as a first timer in China! How is your Chinese by now?
    I have been working in Nanjing for 5 months now as a management trainee in a Luxury Hotel. I didn’t get a chance to take chinese classes because i was way too busy. As working in hospitality i am interacting with many people and i tried to learn “the basics of the basics by myself”. My contract s coming to an end in a month and my chinese s actually not too bad considering i ve never took any classes. I can get myself around in a city. Ask for the price, directions, timing, orders, etc… I really don’t find it that difficult and its a lot of fun to me to try to practice by myself. I learned it only by ear, i have no clue how to read the signs and i can barely write correct “pying”. I am considering staying in China just to learn the language, to be able to maintain everyday and basic business conversations. I am in the Tourism industry which could be extremely useful for me in the future!
    1) Can i learn to speak Chinese without trying to learn to write the signs? (just using pying). I won’t to be able to speak in the shortest time possible.
    2) Is it possible to achieve this in 4 months (as a full time job)?
    3) Where would you advice to go in Shanghai to take these classes and which method is best (groups/private tutor?/combination of both?/how many hours per week, etc…)?
    I would really appreciate some help on that.
    Thank you in advance.

    Best,
    Julie

    • Hi Julie, thanks for your comment. My Chinese now is very scant, living in Italy and not practising has its effects ;)
      Personally, I wouldn’t recommend to study only pinyin, you’ll find that characters are very useful. I know that right now you have the impression that anyway it’s not that you can easily look them up in a dictionary, but they will teach you how to do so and it will be very helpful when you’ll need to learn a new word. Characters are super difficult, sure learn how to write them is hard, maybe at the beginning you can focus more on remembering them and learn how to read…
      I doubt you can learn Chinese very well in only 4 months, it’s a tough language! But you sure can start speaking and communicating in 4 months, and improve as you go by living in China (I envy you!).
      I attended East China Normal University, but I also went in the afternoon to Moren Institute, it’s a private school and they can organize tailored classes just as you prefer, either in a group or one-to-one with a tutor. My experience there was really great, teachers are well prepared and they have a great method. Here are their contact details if you want to inquire Tel +86 5308 5856 #832, http://www.morenedu.com, People Square Center, 21FG, Eastern Building, No.668 East Beijing Road.
      Good luck on your exciting adventure!

  20. i need information more about chines scool

  21. Its a really great article!
    I’m currently learning Chinese in Beijing at LTL mandarin school and they’ve just opened a school in Shanghai. I thought about switching my studies and changing from Beijing to Shanghai but many have people have told me that its difficult to study Mandarin in Shanghai due to Shanghainese. I just wondered what your experience of this was and if you recommend that I stay in Beijing or move to Shanghai?
    Thanks for your feedback and once again, really great article!

  22. Lovely post and great pictures, have you head of Nan Bei Mandarin ? I am thinking of studying there

  23. Re: Chinese language is Putonghua, never Mandarin
    If you teach say language Chinese, say Putonghua, not Mandarin. People don’t know, and school teachers don’t care! obviously; leaving me to inform: The name ‘Mandarin’ has been obsolete 105 years now. ‘Mandarin’ 滿大人, a FOREIGN deference for ‘Manchurian high official’, his office and language were strangely identified. [Why only in China?] But since the Manchurian Qing monarchy (1644-1911) fell, Mandarins dead as dodos, none to speak with; ‘Mandarin’ is a ‘stopper’ once you know it’s an affront to a republican nation.

  24. It is a very nice post.
    I really appreciate the description of your feelings, one can experiment as a first timer in China! How is your Chinese by the way ?

    I have been working in Beijing for 5 year now as a manager of School ; in the past I use to work in a hotel andhas to interact with many client and I have to try to get n “the basics of the basics by myself”.
    I really don’t find it that difficult but need basics and its a lot of fun to me to try to practice by myself. I guess learn with teacher and practice by yourself is the best match.

  25. EasyMandarin Chinese School, located right behind Shanghai’s famous Jing’an Temple, is probably the most popular school in the city. They offer high-quality group courses in the daytime and evening. The also provide students with the documents to apply for an X2 Study Visa. Worth checking them out if you haven’t already.

  26. Thank you Angela for a great article, how is your Chinese now? I’ve been studying and working in Shanghai for almost 8 years and still interacting with Chinese locals is not that easy but it’s getting better and better. You did the right thing to persevere and I personally think university programs are the right way to go. Donghua university offers a great course.

  27. nice, it is an amazing blog, it is the best place to earn new things. the picture quality is amazing, I appreciate your blog. thanks a lot for the great blog.

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